Invisible Histories

Over the holidays I read The Way Out: Invisible Insurrections and Radical Imaginaries in the UK Underground, 1961-1991, by Kasper Opstrup. I was drawn to the book because it covered the Scottish writer, Situationist and junky, Alexander Trocci, who I’ve been interested in since reading his manifesto Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds as a few years back. 

Like many of my interests, I discovered the Situationists through music: reading Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, maybe twenty years ago, which traced the connections between the Sex Pistols and the Dadaist movement – and their later outgrowth, the Situationsist International. The Situationists were a sort of the political wing of Dada, and were looking for ways to “live not as an object but as a subject of history” (1997, 6). Dada was already both an artistic and philosophical movement, and Situationism made the Marxist political aspects of the movement more apparent. With Trocci’s work, this went in a more anarcho-syndicalist direction, and his attempts to found alternative communities and universities are described in Ostrup’s book, along with those of William Burroughs and later Genesis P-Orridge. I’d been aware that Trocci had connections to the Beats, but I wasn’t aware of his later connections to the later 1990s occult scene; from Trocci we go to Burroughs, with whom he collaborated in a number of projects that influenced Robert Anton Wilson, and through him influenced the Chaos Magic scene in the 1980s and ‘90s, including musician Genesis P-Orridge’s Temple of Psychick Youth. And thus we’re back to music again.

 The practices described in The Way Out have similarities to some that we tend to think of as being drawn from Eastern religion and esoteric traditions. Techniques like cut-ups, automatic drawing and sigil magic were intended to break through habitual modes of thinking by destabilising language, and ultimately to escape the spectacle of capitalist society. This is similar to Zen koans or the Tao Te Ching, some of G.I. Gurdjieff’s exercises in developing concentration and awareness, and perhaps most obviously the sort of mindfulness books which are so popular today. Rather than making us more resilient in a late capitalist society, however, the aim was to create a new form of everyday life in which art and practical living were aligned, eventually creating new communities and finally a new society overthrowing the capitalist order of the day. For early Situationists like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, the creation of ‘situations’ – moments deliberately set up to facilitate immediate, conscious, authentic experience – was intended to lead to a “revolution of everyday life”. 

Trocci in 1967. By Source, Fair use,

It’s worth noting that the case studies in this book of the period covered by this book are pre-Internet, or at least prior to the all-encompassing influence on the counterculture that the Internet assumed during the 2000s. All of which makes the history captured in this book the more interesting, because I think more ephemeral groups – like the Temple of Psychick Youth or Trocci’s sigma movement – will leave more easily traced footprints in the future, due to the internet’s endless archive. Nevertheless, these histories and chains of influence are vitally important for us to record; the case studies here are recent – between 6o and 30 years ago – and yet they are already difficult to trace. This subtle transmission of ideas, short-lived and loosely organised groups and often mercurial individuals suggests an epidemiology of ideas and practices through the cultic milieu which is certainly typical of such fringe ideas. Yet they are also at play in more formal and institutionalised groups too, and those further in the past. 

The author seems to have been writing as something of an insider, as the concluding chapter is a call to action and a restatement of the authors’ need for alternative communities and perhaps an invisible insurrection leading to a revolution of everyday life. I don’t disagree with this, but the rich material here could have been used to marshall a more focused argument, or perhaps simply a clearer historical account. Nevertheless I enjoyed reading it, and it has only reawakened my interest in Situationism and its under-researched legacy. There is certainly I need for more work on these kind of subjects which in some ways straddle the boundaries between studies of religion and culture, and so tend to fall between the gaps as a result.

Divine Saving

Reblogged from

Dr Theodora Jim visited the The Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion on the 21st November 2019, to give a paper entitled “Divine Saving and ‘Votive’ Religion in Ancient Greece”. After the seminar, Jessica Hughes and Theodora Jim were joined by John Maiden and Emma-Jayne Graham to record an audio discussion about understandings of divine saving in antiquity and beyond. The discussion also features the voice of Dr Sara Patterson, on Salvation Mountain in California.

Programme structure and timecodes:

0.00 Introduction; 0.43 Theodora Jim on the challenges of translating the word soteria, and the evidence for cults of ‘saviour gods’ in ancient Greece; 6.20 Emma-Jayne Graham on votive offerings from early Roman Italy, and their possible links to understandings of divine saving; 12.25 John Maiden on divine saving in Christianity, including the textual traditions of the Old and New Testaments, and the practice of dedicating ex-votos in Mexico; 19.50 Sara Patterson on Salvation Mountain; 28.17 Studio responses to Sara Patterson; 34.10 Theodora Jim on a votive relief from the Asklepeieon at Athens; 36.38 Emma-Jayne Graham on the votive ‘open torso’ busts from early Roman Italy; 38.51 John Maiden on the Exodus narrative.

Further reading and resources:

Graham, Emma-Jayne (2020) ‘Hand in hand: Rethinking anatomical votives as material things’, in V. Gasparini, M. Patzelt, R. Raja, A-K. Rieger, J. Rüpke, E. Urciuoli (eds). Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics. Berlin, De Gruyter (Open Access).

Graham, Emma-Jayne (2017) ‘Partible humans and permeable gods: enacting human-divine personhood in the sanctuaries of Hellenistic Italy’, in J. Draycott and E-J. Graham (eds) Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future, Routledge, 45-62.

Graziano, Frank (2016) Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico, Oxford University Press.

Hughes, Jessica (2016) ‘Fractured Narratives: Writing the Biography of a Votive Offering‘, in I. Weinryb (ed) Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 23-48.

Jim, Theodora, S. F. (2017) ‘“Salvation” and Ancient Mystery Cults’, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 18, 255-281.

Jim, Theodora, S. F.  (2015) ‘Can Soteira be Named? The Problem of the Bare Trans-divine Epithet’Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 195, 63-74.

Jim, Theodora, S. F. (2014) Sharing with the Gods: Aparchai and Dekatai in Ancient Greece, Oxford University Press.

Maiden, John (2019) ‘The emergence of Catholic Charismatic Renewal ‘in a country’: Australia and transnational Catholic Charismatic Renewal’ Studies in World Christianity (in press).

Maiden, John (2016)  ‘Renewing the body of Christ: Sharing of Ministries Abroad (SOMA) USA and transnational charismatic Anglicanism, 1978-1998’, Journal of American Studies, 51.4: 1243–1266.

Patterson, Sara M. (2016) Middle of Nowhere: Religion, Art and Pop Culture at Salvation Mountain, University of New Mexico Press.

Death of a Founder: Louis Theroux and ‘America’s Most Hated Family’

Louis Theroux, the journalist and documentary filmmaker, has never shied away from controversial topics, communities, and individuals. His 2007 documentary, The Most Hated Family in America, which documented the activities of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), served as an especially notable example. Following its success, Theroux recently returned to the WBC for a follow-up documentary, Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, which aimed to give an insight to the current climate of the church, particularly following the recent death of its founder, Fred Phelps.

The WBC is commonly associated with the Phelps family, who are at the centre of the church’s practices, activities, and public engagement. While there are other members beyond the Phelps family, the WBC consists of fewer than 100 members, and largely stands apart from other forms of Baptist denominations. The Phelps and other WBC members have become known as a hate-group in public discourse, particularly due to their use of highly discriminatory language and actions directed towards groups including the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, Muslims, and the American military. The WBC have become renowned for their public protests, during which they hold inflammatory signs (including ‘GOD HATES FAGS’, ‘YOU’RE GOING TO HELL’, and ‘ABORTION IS BLOODY MURDER’), which have drawn significant attention from the media (ranging from news coverage to comedic parodies).

During his original documentary Theroux spent a significant amount of time meeting Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, and concentrated on the homophobic beliefs and actions of the WBC. For his return in Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, Theroux stated that “embarrassing secrets were said to be coming out” about the WBC, specifically concerning the issue of apostasy and the excommunication of Fred Phelps prior to his death.

These issues were the thrust of Theroux’s documentary. On the surface, very little has changed, as demonstrated by a WBC picketer’s “GOD STILL HATES FAGS” sign (“God hasn’t changed, and he’s not going to”, he explained). Religions, however, particularly New Religious Movements, are dynamic categories. They are in a constant state of change depending on its members, social environment, and practices. Theroux was successfully able to probe the issue of apostasy – three of Shirley Phelps-Roper’s children (two daughters and one son), have recently left the WBC, and have been subject to ‘shunning’ from their family and the church. Notably, Megan Phelps-Roper discussed how she decided to leave the church following conversations with outsiders on Twitter, and has since presented a TED talk on her experiences of the WBC and why she left.

Arguably the most interesting aspect of the documentary is the second “embarrassing secret”: the shunning of Fred Phelps. Before his death in 2014, it is alleged that Phelps approached the residents of the ‘Equality House’ (a house near the WBC painted in Pride colours as a form of protest), and told them that they were “good people.” Given Phelps’ reputation for highly homophobic sermons, such an action seems at odds to the discriminatory activities with which the WBC are typically associated. It is believed that, as a response, WBC members voted to excommunicate Phelps from the church. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Theroux was less successful in gaining substantial information on this issue. Beyond the accounts of Shirley Phelps-Roper’s apostate children, WBC members were not forthcoming with details, and mostly avoided his questioning on the topic.

Westboro Baptist Church 1955 [via Wikimedia commons]

The excommunication of a leader is highly significant, particularly one that directly informed the core beliefs and practices of their community.  Scholars of new religions have committed a significant amount of research on the notion of ‘charismatic leaders’, those who attract devotion and dedication from their followers (see Barker 1992). The death of a charismatic leader raises several possibilities for the future (and survival) of a movement. For the WBC, this issue has an even greater impact due to Phelps’ “loss of charisma” (Wessinger 2012). As Theroux correctly observed, any acknowledgement of his excommunication from the WBC would suggest a fallacy, or that Phelps had “fallen” by straying from the core message of the church.

The Weberian (1948) model of routinized charisma suggests that a movement succumbs to routine bureaucratic authority following the death of the charismatic leader. However, due to Phelps’ excommunication, it is currently unclear how his charismatic authority may or may not be preserved. His loss of charisma is already making its mark on how the WBC is organized – Theroux suggests that Shirley Phelps-Roper has been “sidelined” (having previously acted as the WBC’s chief spokesperson). Furthermore, whilst the Phelps family continue to be at the core of the WBC membership, there are a small number of new members joining the church, which seem likely to influence the future direction of the WBC.

As previously noted, the day-to-day activities of the WBC are largely unchanged, with its members continuing to pursue their controversial picketing. Yet the excommunication and death of Phelps is resulting in significant organizational changes ‘behind the scenes.’ Theroux’s latest documentary offers us a glimpse of this transition, but the full impact of the WBC’s rejection of Phelps remains to be seen.



Barker, E. (1992) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, London, HMSO.

Weber, M. (1948b) ‘The Social Psychology of the World Religions’, in Gerth, H. H. and Mills, C. W. (eds and trans), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London, Routledge, pp. 267-301 (this edition 1991).

Wessinger, C. (2012) ‘Charismatic Leaders in New Religions’, in Hammer, O. & Rothstein, M. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 80-96.

Where are Extinction Rebellion’s cultural roots?

By Maria Nita

I would like to explore here some of the cultural roots and influences on the Extinction Rebellion movement, since this will shed light on the discourses that can be revived when XR is discussed in the public domain, be it by politicians, the general public or the media. For example, when climate activists are described as ‘uncooperative crusties’ in their ‘heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs’ (Rawlinson, 2019), we can recognise a well-established anti-hippie discourse which dominated public concerns over the free festivals in the UK, in the early 1970s. Such remarks are not dissimilar to those I found in my archival data from the free festivals, when the hippies were often vilified as ‘smelly’, ‘long hair types’, ‘a lunatic fringe’, ‘drug pushers’, ‘addicts’ and so on (Nita and Gemie, 2019). Surprisingly, it was the Christian clergy that had an important conciliatory tone and a role in recognizing the Christian values in the hippie movement – which in time helped legitimize the early festivals and indeed the ensuing, gone mainstream, festival culture.

Early festivals, protestivals, non-violent disobedience

We can trace some of XR’s ideological and cultural roots in the early festival movement, as well as the earlier 1960s communes, which had a similar mix of civil disobedience, artivism – or artistic activism, cooperative ethos, communalism, and of course anticipating a world in deep crisis future which the commune could withstand (Miller, 1990). Certainly, as an heir of the early festivals – the ‘protestival’ – has been a common form of expression for the alter-globalization movements we have seen since the 1980s (St John, 2008), as well as many contemporary movements of artistic social reform, such as the global Occupy Movement in recent history (Tremlett, 2016). However, XR is also extending its countercultural roots, reaching out towards the mainstream, in new ways. The unprecedented urgency of the ecological crisis means that XR needs to reach many more people than the original Climate Movement was able to, and its inspiring policy of ‘radical inclusivity’ – welcoming ‘everyone and every part of everyone’ – can be seen an open invitation to those who might not see themselves as green activist material. By tracing its own non-violent disobedience origins to the civil rights movement, and often linking the movement to Martin Luther King and Gandhi, XR aims to widen its scope from an earlier Climate Movement that recognised its limitations as a largely white and middle class movement, to one that is entirely relevant to multicultural communities and current widespread concerns with inclusion: see for instance XR’s swift response to condemn co-founder Roger Hallam’s offensive remarks towards the Holocaust (November, 2019).

A changed Climate Movement

Having researched the Climate Movement as an ethnographer/ anthropologist concerned with Christian and Muslim activists since 2008, I was naturally excited by its revival and re-invention as the Extinction Rebellion movement. A key driver for the renewal and growth of the Climate Movement was the publication of the last International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report – which states that carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall dramatically by 2030 – to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Past this threshold – the changes will be catastrophic, with loss of many ecosystems. Back in the field, I could see that the fabric of this revived movement was tangibly and visually changed. If the ‘early’ Climate Movement had used colours of green, blue and white in many of its marches and global days of action, to represent the raising waters or the vanishing ice caps for example – XR flew back in and blocked big capital arteries and village capillaries with dramatic colours of extinction and grief, blood and funerals – deep reds and black being at the forefront of its performative actions, like the iconic Red Brigade pictured here.

Can XR change our extinction trajectory?

My research suggests that, notwithstanding the global growth and influence of contemporary non-violent resistance movements (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011) – from Brazil’s indigenous tribes to the Arab Spring – we find in XR a model of protest and social change that is pivotally rooted in the cultural landscape of a post Christian society: a type of protest that is non-violent, sacrificial, communitarian and performative. More so, the small components of this model – the semiotics or internal grammar of performative actions – reveal a deeply familiar underlay. From XR songs to performative actions, such as ‘die ins’ – when protestors lie on the ground as if dead – to making their bodies go limp as they are being arrested and carried away by the police – we recognise in many XR public rituals a heroic vulnerability that has Christian resonance. Given my claim that Christianity represents an original and persistent model for cultural change (Nita, 2018), I have hope that XR can make as many of us as possible – and most importantly our political leaders – committed to a sustainable future, since this is the only one possible.


Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.
Miller, Timothy. 1990. The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. Syracuse University Press.
Nita, Maria. 2018. ‘Christian Discourses and Cultural Change: The Greenbelt Art and Performance Festival as an Alternative Community for Green and Liberal Christians’, Implicit Religion, 21 (1): 44-69.
Nita, Maria and Sharif Gemie. 2019. ‘Counterculture, Local Authorities and British Christianity at the Windsor and Watchfield Free Festivals (1972–75)’ in Twentieth Century British History [online]
Rawlinson, Kevin. 2019. ‘Extinction Rebellion’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2019 [online] [accessed 24 November 2019].
St John, Graham. 2008. ‘Protestival: Global Days of Action and Carnivalized Politics in the Present’, Social Movement Studies, 7 (2): 167-190.
Tremlett, Paul-François. 2016 ‘Affective Dissent in the Heart of the Capitalist Utopia: Occupy Hong Kong and the Sacred’, Sociology, 50 (6): 1156-1169.

Afghanistan – War without End?

By Hugh Beattie

Is war the new normal in the Middle East, asks a recent Daily Telegraph review of Elliot Ackerman’s Places and Names, about American involvement there since the turn of the century.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the answer must be yes. For much of the 20th century the country was relatively peaceful. Forty-one years ago (in April 1978) a left-wing government took power in the country in a military coup, and attempted to introduce a series of major social and economic reforms, provoking a major insurgency. At the end of 1979 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan to defend the new government. The country has suffered ever since from an ongoing civil war which has varied in intensity, but has never really ended.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, it may be a good moment to reflect on why conflict has continued for so long. A few brief thoughts.

Firstly, there are some agriculturally very productive areas in different parts of Afghanistan, but there is a desert area in the south, and mountains (rising to 7,492 metres in the east) run across the country from east to west. These help to make communications difficult and have contributed to a strong sense of regional and even local rather than national identity.

Part of a propaganda poster produced by the new government in 1978. It depicts the last two stages in the evolution of human society according to Marxist theory; it reads from right to left – the image on the right represents capitalist society and the one on the left the final stage – the socialist utopia.

Secondly, the Afghan state, largely a product of later 19th century British imperialism, has shallow roots. Even in the later 20th century, its reach was often quite limited in rural areas and local communities maintained a considerable degree of independence.

Thirdly, there is the country’s ethnic diversity. About half the population identify as Pashtuns and Pashtu is often their first language; there are substantial minorities, who have different mother-tongues, including Persian, Uzbeki and Baluchi.

Fourthly, there is the presence of a number of powerful neighbours and near neighbours, including China, Pakistan, India and Iran, each interested in maintaining as much influence over the country as possible, and keeping others out. This is partly for strategic reasons, and partly in the hope of gaining control of the country’s mineral wealth. So, for example, since the early 1990s Pakistan has usually supported the Taliban, while its neighbour and rival, India, has tended to support more secular movements. Other, more distant, actors have also interfered during the last half-century, ranging from the USA and the UK to Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as Al-Qaida), NATO and the UN.

A shrine in the Kabul suburbs, the Ziarat-i-Sakhi, which has Imami Shi’a connections, taken on New Year’s Day (according to the local calendar March 21) 1979.

The religious factor is an important one too, with the almost all Afghans being Muslims, and influential religious leaders having a history of mobilising resistance to foreign intrusion, for example the Mullah Din Muhammad, known as Mushk-i-Alam (meaning ‘the perfume of the world’), who helped to lead resistance to the British during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).

As a result, during the 20th century Afghan governments usually had to tread carefully and not interfere too much with society and the economy if they wanted to stay in power. Some rulers tried to compensate for their weakness by looking for help from outside, but accepting aid from one foreign country in particular, especially a non-Muslim one, was usually very unpopular. It also encouraged other states to intervene, in order to prevent a rival getting the upper hand there.

After the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 following 9/11, it seemed possible that a new page in Afghanistan’s history might be turned and a new socio-political order based on freedom and democracy might emerge. But the problems were enormous, and all too soon the ‘golden moment’ passed. Soviet troops had left the country in 1989 leaving behind a weak government in Kabul and a number of powerful leaders (often referred to as warlords) in the provinces. Now it seems that in its turn the USA will soon withdraw almost all its troops, leaving a weak government in Kabul and a renascent Taliban in control of at least half the country. Sad to say, peace seems as remote a prospect as at any point since 1979.

Photo of the tomb shrine of a Sufi ‘saint’, Padshah Sahib, a few miles outside Kabul. Reportedly he died defending the local people from invaders during the 18th century CE.

Trojan Horse: A New Play

By Stefanie Sinclair

The award-winning play ‘Trojan Horse’ is currently touring theatres in the UK (for dates and details, see here). I would thoroughly recommend seeing it, if you can. Written by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, originally developed by Leeds Playhouse and performed by the LUNG theatre company, this fast-paced ‘documentary play’ powerfully highlights the devastating effect that the ‘Trojan Horse affair’ in Birmingham schools has had on local communities.

This ‘affair’ first hit UK media headlines in 2014 and was linked to claims that there had been an organised Islamist plot by ‘hardline’ Muslim governors and teachers to infiltrate Birmingham schools to radicalise school children. While these allegations remain unproven and long-drawn-out disciplinary proceedings against teachers were eventually discontinued, their impact has been significant. Not only were these allegations used to justify controversial changes in educational policies, practices and government PREVENT guidance for schools, registered childcare providers, universities and colleges in the UK to include ‘non-violent extremism’. The way the Trojan Horse affair was presented by the media and used by politicians has also had a serious, long-lasting and damaging impact on the local communities concerned. Based on testimonies from more than 200 hours of interviews with about 90 witnesses, the play gives voice to previously neglected perspectives of members of local communities that were involved, including school children, teachers, governors and members of Birmingham city council.

‘Trojan Horse’, Credit: Ant Robling (also top image)

The LUNG theatre company has been keen to engage its audience and to attract and involve members of Muslim communities. For every performance, 30 headsets are offered with Urdu translations of the play and free tickets have been made available to members of local Muslim groups. The actors include Qasim Mahmood, who grew up in Alum Rock, the location of Park View Academy, one of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair. The performances have also been followed by after-show panels and audience discussions with John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, who was an expert witness used by the defence in the professional misconduct cases brought against teachers at these schools. These after-show panels have also involved leaders of local community groups, academics as well as actors and members of the production team. I have taken part in these lively after-show panel discussions to a sold-out theatre at the Lowry in Salford, Liverpool Unity Theatre and the Dukes in Lancaster. I was invited to join these panels on the basis of my research that critically investigates party-political discourses of ‘extremism’ and ‘British values’ used in the context of the Trojan Horse affair (see my recent article in Implicit Religion 21.4).

The ‘Trojan Horse’ after-show panel members at The Lowry, 12th of October 2019 (from left to right: Stefanie Sinclair, Necla Acik, Basir Kazmi, Madiha Ansari, Qasim Mahmood and John Holmwood)

The play is touring the UK until the end of November 2019 and will also be performed in the Westminster parliament in January 2020 as guests of the All Party Parliamentary Committee on British Muslims.

John Holmwood (Professor of Sociology and Social Policy) with writers Matt Woodhead (co-writer and director) and Helen Monks (co-writer) – and the Trojan Horse.

Why do we teach Religious Studies? Because Religion Matters.

The figure dominating this image, a highlight in the Kansas State Capital building, is that of John Brown (1800-1859). He was an infamous abolitionist who believed that armed conflict was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Here he holds a Bible in his left hand, and a Sharps rifle in his right; he is a Moses-like figure straddling a river of blood between the waring Union and Confederate armies.

I grew up in abolitionist-founded Lawrence, Kansas over a hundred years after these events, but John Brown remained a figure in the collective memory of local myth. Along with many of my peers, I cheerfully and enthusiastically joined in rounds of the lively folk song:

John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,
But his truth goes marching on.

One of the truths I learned growing up in a land of passionate and largely unchallenged belief was that religion has incredible power to motivate people. It brings out the best in people – and the worst. I learned that many people with passionate beliefs do not practice what they preach. However, others provided amazing inspirational examples of being willing to die for their moral principles.

But another thing I experienced was that the people around me often did not know much about what was going on around them, about their neighbours, or about the myths and history which continue to influence contemporary decisions. Because freedom of belief was a Constitutional Right, we did not often challenge others to explain their beliefs or behaviours.

And religion does matter – whether we are believers, atheists, or something in between, it is implicated in our societies if we like it or not. We need tools to understand the role it plays in creating political, social, economic and environmental problems. Religion also has the potential to inspire us to solve many of the global challenges we face today.

Today, Religious Studies offers us the interdisciplinary tools to understand and interact with those who may believe and practice things very different than ourselves. We use the tools of history and the humanities to better explore and understand ourselves and others. We also use the critical investigative tools of the social sciences to get an evidence base for what people are actually saying and doing, what these actions mean, and what might be the best ways to engage. In Religious Studies, we practice identifying the best available tools to address our questions in a disciplined, critical and evidenced based way.

To this end, my colleagues Hugh Beattie and Graham Harvey and I have designed a free FutureLearn course to highlight Why Religion Matters. This course is not a list of beliefs and practices of world religions to encourage greater tolerance. This course aims to give you the skills to critically engage with the world around you. It aims to encourage you not make assumptions, but to educate yourself to ask and engage actively with the meaning-making assumptions of both others – and yourself.

Hanging out with my former PhD supervisor, David Bebbington (photo J. Maiden)

Quadrilaterals in Waco: reflections on the ‘Evangelicals and the Bible’ symposium

By John Maiden

On 19-20 September I visited Baylor University in Waco, Texas, for a symposium on ‘Evangelicals and the Bible’ in history. The event was to honour the contribution of Professor David Bebbington to the historical study of evangelicalism following his “retirement” (inverted commas explained below). I studied my doctorate under Bebbington and his work has been an important influence on my research. He is particularly known for the ‘Bebbington Quadrilateral’ of the four characteristics which have marked evangelicals: Biblicism (emphasis on the authority of Scripture); Crucicentricism (centrality of the atonement); Conversionism; and activism (e.g. in evangelism; on issues of social justice). The quadrilateral, as Bebbington explained, was never intended as a wider ‘definition’ of evangelicalism, and it first appeared in the context of a book specifically on British evangelicalism. However, it has since been taken up by various scholars of North American evangelicalism, and even global evangelicalism. The symposium consisted of three plenaries (including one from the Man himself), various panels, tributes and a Q and A. During the latter, it was announced that Bebbington is to be Director of a new initiative for scholars of global evangelicalism, which will involve an annual conference at Baylor – next year, on evangelicalism in Latin America.

George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco (photo: J. Maiden)

George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco (photo: J. Maiden)

Not surprisingly, one theme was the ‘state of the Quadrilateral’ itself. Brian Stanley’s excellent plenary on the applicability of the Quadrilateral to Global South evangelicalism in the twentieth century argued persuasively for its ongoing utility for researchers. In the discussion, though, I suggested that Pneumatism (which I define as emphasis on the Spirit’s post-conversion work and empowering presence, and the reality of a supernatural ‘alive world’) has been for many Global South evangelicals a ‘fifth mark’, as important as the other four. In my own paper on charismatic renewal and the Bible in Britain and New Zealand I argued also that pneumatism has commonly been a fifth important mark of post-1945 evangelical charismatics in the Global North. I suggested that pneumatism might be deployed flexibly as an alternative, additional fifth characteristic, one which is relevant not only to charismatics and Pentecostals, but also, for example, Holiness evangelicalism, and strains of more Reformed Calvinistic evangelicalism. But could the argument for a fifth characteristic be made even more widely? Is it applicable to early Evangelicalism? Bruce Hindmarsh’s recent work may indicate that certain ‘spirited’ aspects of eighteenth-century evangelicalism deserve greater emphasis.  That is, of course, a much bigger question!

Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, like so much of his work, continues to define the study of evangelicalism and the questions that people are asking about it.

David Robertson at the DVRW

On 5 September 2019, David Robertson and his colleague from the Religious Studies Project, Chris Cotter, delivered the opening lecture at the XXXIII Jahrestagung der Deutschen Vereinigung für Religionswissenschaft (DVRW 2019) in Hannover. Or, rather, they were stuck between flights in Amsterdam, and so recorded the lecture in advance. Here it is. Thanks to the organizers for inviting us, and allowing us to share.

Conference website:

Abstract: What happens to the study of religion when the comparative categories upon which it is founded fall away? Can we reconceptualize the field? Should we? ‘After World Religions’ (2016) attempted to show some ways in which we might address this in our teaching practise, but it also showed how hegemonic categories like “world religions” continue to be in public discourse and in the institutional logic of the modern Religious Studies department. The growth of studies into the non-religious and embodied vernacular practices may suggest the broader relevance of our approach(es), but also represent a defence of categories like “religion” against these criticisms. This input paper will discuss and critically assess some possible ways forward for Religious Studies after World Religions.

The OU at 50: Religious Studies

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

I had just been appointed as a part-time OU tutor (now known as an Associate Lecturer) to teach a new module, ‘Man’s Religious Quest’. My first tutorial was about to take place in Bolton in February 1978. The night before, I received a phone call from one of the students I would meet on the following evening. He could not easily get to Bolton so would I pick him up as I would be driving through Wigan? We were consequently locked together in a shared car journey during which time he grilled me, not about the arcane mysteries of the study of religions, but about whether the new module had been placed on the right level, whether its assignments were appropriate to this level, substitution regulations, and about OU life and its demands in general. The problem was that he seemed to speak fluently in a language made up almost entirely of acronyms, which he assumed I, as an OU tutor, would understand. It got little better once in the presence of my new class, all of whom seemed to have strong views about the demands of the new module, backed up, I am sure, with persuasive comparisons with other modules they had taken to date, all unfamiliar territory to me at that time. Before long, they were thoroughly immersed in what they agreed was one of the most fascinating modules they had taken. Simultaneously, I and my family became immersed in the OU and fluent in ‘OU-speak’ as that first tutorial was succeeded by many more over the following sixteen years as I taught a succession of Religious Studies modules.

What I saw of our students over the sixteen years of being a tutor more than convinced me of the worth of the OU and the value of its social mission. Apart from meeting some amazing and gifted people, in addition to taking regular tutorials, the OU gave me the opportunity to develop my skills in commenting on students’ work, supporting students with disabilities (then done through one-to-one tutorials in the student’s home) and students taking modules in prison whom I also visited. I came to realize what the potential reach of the OU could offer my own subject, Religious Studies, one that has not always attracted the attention it deserves in the school curriculum, despite the best efforts of many gifted RE teachers. Consequently, I seized the opportunity to become a full-time, OU regional academic in 1993, which took me into a new role, working with the team of Arts tutors in the region where I lived. Many, together with some of my full-time regional colleagues, became the colleagues with whom I worked most closely and over the longest period of my career. By then, the OU had won the battle to establish itself as a university in the eyes of government, other academics, employers, and the wider public. So many students wanted to register for the Arts level 1 module in the early years of the OU that many ended up in a queue for the following year. I always retained a respect for the generation of academics who had built the OU when the outcome of this new venture, and thus the effect on their careers, was far less certain. In the same year I joined the OU, Religious Studies was granted departmental status within the OU Faculty of Arts.

When I began to apply to universities for admission, like many others in the 1960s whose families had no previous experience of higher education, I knew very little about university courses and what they would involve. I simply wanted to pursue my interest in the study of religion, just like any other Humanities subject. Not knowing at that time how else to pursue the academic study of religion, I embarked on an undergraduate Theology degree in 1968. Once into my first term – yes, that quickly – it began to dawn on me how large the mismatch was between the curriculum of my chosen degree and my emerging interests. Had I but known, the first autonomous department of Religious Studies in the UK (one unconnected to an overarching department or faculty of Theology) was established at the University of Lancaster in 1967. This department, under the leadership of Professor Ninian Smart, exercised a considerable influence on the growth of interest in the study of religions in the 1970s through its involvement in projects to strengthen RE in schools and a prestigious BBC TV series on different religious traditions. My degree in Theology did enable me to take options in the history of religions, including the Hindu tradition. It thus helped me to discover that I wanted to study Hindu movements in India from the nineteenth century to the present-day, and I moved to Lancaster to continue postgraduate study there. Strongly influenced by my experience at Lancaster, I wanted to play a part in promoting the study of religions of the kind associated with Religious Studies. My professional life at the OU has been closely intertwined with the fortunes of Religious Studies.

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